Russell turned to see a Japanese woman smiling as she waved from her car. He had no name to put with the face, but he recognized her as a co-worker for the Nov. 3-5 Okinawa Franklin Graham Festival. Until recently, interaction between Okinawan and American Christians on the island was highly uncommon.
Tears welled up in Russell’s eyes. “I have been on the island for 12 years, and this is a first,” he says, reflecting on how God has used the Festival preparations to bring the American and Japanese Christians together for what Russell hopes is the most significant event in the history of the island.
Tamotsu Uchimura, pastor of New Life Chapel, says that the Festival has given opportunity for the Japanese and Americans to work and pray together for the salvation of people on the island of 1.3 million where he estimates the percentage of Christians to be about 3 percent, slightly higher than Japan as a whole. “We really have become one and we really love each other,” Uchimura says.
The relationship between the Japanese and the Americans on Okinawa has been tense since the 1945 American invasion of the island at the end of World War II. Casualties on Okinawa numbered more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and 90 percent of the island’s buildings were destroyed. The island was returned to the Japanese in 1972, but the U.S. has maintained a military presence. Roughly 100,000 American military personnel and their families are stationed there.
Festival Director Chad Hammond says that though the American military presence can be a source of tension, he has seen firsthand how God has brought unity through Festival preparations, which have joined the two communities across language, cultural and denominational lines, and deep-seated racial tensions. Hammond has seen a spirit of reconciliation displayed most vividly in the general chairman of the Festival, Mamoru Kunyoshi, whose father was one of the World War II casualties.
Kunyoshi hopes the Festival will help to break the hold of ancestor worship, a common practice on Okinawa, in which ancestors become like gods to their descendants. Because of the nature of this spiritual struggle, Kunyoshi says, “A clear understanding of the living God is of great importance … an understanding that God is the creator and sustainer of all life.”
Sharing the sentiments of more than 200 pastors throughout Okinawa, Bo Russell hopes that come the time of the Festival, people will be doing more than just calling out the name of a local pastor on a crowded street–they will be calling on “the name of Jesus for salvation,” he says. “Oh, for a thousand tongues to do just that!”